Steve Udovich recalls being impressed by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which he saw as an ROTC cadet a week after it was dedicated in 1982 in Washington, D.C.
Now the Dunedin resident and others are spearheading the Iraq and Afghanistan War Memorial of Florida that is expected to be built at the 2.5-acre Veterans Memorial Park in the city of Port St. Lucie.
The monument, expected to cost $75,000 to $80,000, will honor Floridians who served in our nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Udovich is the founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan War Memorial Foundation. A friend of his since 1986, Phil Wyllie, who lives in Belleair, is a vice president. Both are retired U.S. Army officers who were stationed in South Korea.
Another vice president is Kim Allison, the mother of Zachary Shannon, a Dunedin resident who died in helicopter crash on a training mission in 2013 in Afghanistan.
The project was initiated in April with Udovich and others surveying about 50 locations in Florida before settling on a park in Port Lucie as the location of the monument.
“No offense to other towns or parks, but we believe that Port St. Lucie Veterans Memorial Park is the best park of its kind in the state of Florida,” he said. “When dedicated, hopefully December of 2023, this monument will be the only one of its kind in Florida.”
The front side of the monument “will be adorned with metal plates, painted in the colors of each war's campaign ribbons, outlines of each country, service emblems, and appropriate wording. The back side will list 355 names of Floridians who were killed in each war,” the foundation's website says.
The Port St. Lucie City Council unanimously gave consensus in May to allow the monument project to be at the city park, and Udovich gives kudos to city officials there for their support and efforts to promote it.
The first phase for the foundation was putting together documents ensuring that it was recognized as charitable foundation.
"And then we focused on finding a location. As you know Florida is a big state. It took us a good four, four and a half months to find a location we thought was suitable for us," Udovich said.
Fund-raising efforts will start in January, mostly directed to veterans organizations such as the VFW and American Legion.
"We wanted to kind of take a time out and not start our fundraising efforts until mid-January so as to give the hurricane relief efforts time to run their course," Udovich said.
The foundation has raised about 25 percent of the money it needs. Helping out will be the American Legion Post 318 in Port St. Lucie, which Udovich said is one of the largest legion posts in the state.
"If we can have all the money we need by April 1, then we can start the payment process, which is four checks to the monument company, and have a very good shot at dedicating it in December," he said.
Allison, who is president of the women's auxiliary for Dunedin VFW Post 2550, said Udovich asked her to be part of the board when he decided to launch the project, knowing she was a Gold Star mother.
Gold Star Mothers is a nonprofit organization of American mothers who lost sons or daughters while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
"He figured because I know other Gold Star moms it would be a big help," Allison said. "And he just wanted my input from a Gold Star mom's viewpoint."
She is confident the foundation will be able to accomplish the monument mission.
"We've gotten a lot of support financially. Steve, whenever he sets his mind to something, it will get done," Allison said. "That's one thing I can tell you for sure."
She said she likes the monument based on the renderings she said, calling it beautiful and simple.
"They always say you are never truly gone until you are forgotten. And so to keep the memory alive of people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan from Florida, it's so important," Allision said.
Wyllie said he feels strongly about the project, noting that it's time that the soldiers who lost their lives in those Iraq and Afghanistan be recognized.
Though the foundation is operating on a shoestring budget, Wyllie said, it has support from the Port St. Lucie officials, the foundation's website and friends of his in businesses who also have children in the military as well.
"We have been fortunate enough that some of those guys have contributed," Wyllie said.
Though he's not begging for contributions, he said a lot of the foundation's expenses are out of pocket.
A retired special services veteran, Wyllie said he has good links to organizations.
"I believe all the special forces associations here in Florida have been contacted. The message is out there. We're on LinkedIn. It's a continued effort. We're walking up hill," Wyllie said.
For its auctions and related events, the foundation has acquired a Ted Nugent guitar, a variety of guns, a hockey stick from the Tampa Bay Lightning and other items.
The project will not be a one-and-done effort, Udovich said.
"After this monument is dedicated in Florida, we intend to duplicate this project in other states. Same design, with state specific names. Because what we can do in Florida we will do for Georgia or Alabama," he said.
PG Memorials, based in Vermont, is the monument company for the project.
The longest part of the process is getting the stone, called black granite, from India. It was virtually unknown to the monument community in the United States until the Vietnam Memorial was unveiled in Washington, D.C., Udovich said.
"That's when Indian black granite really took off in the United States," he said, adding that he thought it would be appropriate to use the same type of stone.
Meanwhile, Udovich is eager to begin the major fundraising efforts in January and see the project get under the way. Visit www.IAWMF.org for more information.
"I look forward to the day when I get a phone call from PG Memorials: the monument has been loaded on the flatbed and it's on its way down I-95," he said.